Potatoes, not patchouli, is the best way to help Rwanda

Voice of the City talks international aid.

Haligonian Barb Stegemann has been in the media a lot lately talking about her initiative to save the world one perfume bottle at a time by encouraging farmers to produce perfume ingredients for her company The 7 Virtues.

Having recently expanded into Rwanda, Stegemann emphasizes that, although she runs a for-profit business, not a charity, her efforts represent unequivocal progress for Rwandans. Members of the media appear uninterested in asking whether this is actually the case.

Though I fully support assisting people plagued by violence, I find Stegemann’s approach typical of situations when uninformed Western interests enter low-income countries like Rwanda.

According to Stegemann, for example, the country’s leadership is “extraordinary.” Yet a multitude of recent scholarship on Rwanda paints a dramatically different picture.

The current regime is authoritarian at best, dictatorial at worst. Predications about Rwanda’s political future range from quite cautious to downright pessimistic. One scholar sees worrisome similarities between the current leadership and those who ruled the country when violence erupted in the 1990s.

The country’s rural poor tend to view their government and its commitment to unity and reconciliation with suspicion. There is far too little sharing of political power, and economic resources are being concentrated in fewer hands.

Also according to Stegeman, Rwanda’s women have become pivotal in the political process. And this is exactly what the still male-dominated leadership wants outsiders to believe.

In reality, Rwandan women have worked hard and achieved some gains, including increased respect from family and community members, but there has been little in the way of improvement regarding formal political participation.

Women have better representation in government, but given the authoritarian nature of the state, they appear to have very limited power in these new roles. The legislative gains that Stegemann purports have been few.

And because most women who took such positions had previously been leading women’s civil society organizations, these once relatively powerful pro-women groups are now less effective.

The still male-dominated government, moreover, regularly uses the façade of a pro-women movement to gain support both internally and abroad to further its agenda of heavy-handed, elite-focused development as it harasses the media, suppresses dissent and crushes political opposition.

Stegemann appears to have big plans in Rwanada. During a recent interview, she explained that when she goes to “nations with serious war and strife,” her goal is to “shine a light on them and empower them.” A tall order, to be sure.

The anthropological perspective highlights that such an undertaking should be based on in-depth knowledge of a country. So, if her vision is more than marketing-speak, then Stegemann needs to know a lot more about Rwanda before deciding whether to play a role in shaping its future.

There is already reason to think that Stegemann has failed to recognize one major pitfall. Rwanada is a food-deficit country. It has great difficulty feeding itself, which is why chronic childhood malnutrition remains at 43 percent.

A primary cause of food insecurity in sub-Saharan Africa is the use of productive farmland to grow non-food crops for export—the exact model Stegemann utilizes. As she explained in a recent CTV interview, Rwandans are better off producing patchouli for her than potatoes to feed themselves.

A bottle of “Patchouli of Rwanda,” furthermore, sells for $70 at Hudson’s Bay. What percentage of that likely ends up in the hands of Rwandan farmers?

I welcome a correction from Stegemann on this, but if I’m correct, anthropologists call this wealth extraction. Only the wage remains in Rwanda, which is meager compared to the global market value of what is being taken out of the country.

In short, the media’s adoration of Stegemann needs a little counterbalance. My hope is that readers will understand that good intentions are simply not enough when Western entrepreneurs take their ideals abroad.

Rylan Higgins is an assistant professor of anthropology at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax.

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